How to Get Your Table Linens Clean for the Holidays

Goodbye, red wine stains.

table settings candles centerpiece and linens in peach orange blush tones
Photo: Alpha Smoot

From the first glass of red wine to the last bite of chocolate mousse, the holidays can be rough on table linens. Every festive meal has the potential to leave behind not-so-festive stains-some of which seem determined to stick around through the New Year.

But never fear. With a little know-how, a bit of trial and error and a whole lot of cold water, even the most notoriously tricky stains can be shown the door.

Guests on the way? Follow these expert tips for like-new-again table linens.

Pre-Treat Like a Pro

If you're clearing the table and notice a cranberry sauce situation, don't simply toss your table linens in the washer and hope for the best. The chances of successfully removing a stain go down after the first laundering, so bring out the big guns right away.

"You always want to start by pre-treating with a stain remover you trust," advises Melissa Maker, the fastidious expert behind Clean My Space, the self-professed "cleanest place on the Internet."

The type of stain will dictate the type of stain remover you use. For greasy stains left behind by gravy, turkey or stuffing, use an enzyme cleaner such as Biokleen. Enzyme cleaners are designed to break down protein stains, making it easier for them to dissolve in the washing machine.

Other stains will respond better to oxygen-based stain removers, such as OxiClean. Oxygen cleaners work by releasing bubbles that lift stains, a strategy that works best for the tannins in red wine.

One of Maker's favorite under-the-radar stain removers is eucalyptus oil, which she discovered while trying to remove stubborn baby food from her daughter's clothes. She recommends buying therapeutic-grade oil, putting a couple drops directly on the stain and letting it sit for a few minutes before laundering.

While it's ideal to remove the stain on the first attempt, don't give up if it doesn't work. "You might have to try a few different products," says Maker. "Stains don't always behave the way we expect them to, and some require a couple different methods."

edged cloth napkins orange blue stripes folded
Sidney Bensimon

Choose Your Water Temperature Wisely

You've probably heard that you should always use cold water when removing stains. You've also probably heard that you should always use hot water when removing stains.

It's a divisive topic, and there's not a truly correct answer. Hot water can be the best approach for some stains, such as ink, coffee and wine. However, if your stain is protein-based-think meat, grease, or blood-hot water will actually "cook" the stain into the fibers.

When it comes to table linens, which tend to have a variety of stains, err on the side of cold. While it may take two tries to get out the espresso, you won't be stuck with a permanent turkey smudge.

"From start to finish, avoid heat," says Maker. "No hot water, no hot dryer."

When to Bleach

Good old-fashioned bleach can be used as both a pre-treatment for stains and in your washing machine along with detergent.

First things first: Not all fabrics are good bleach candidates. Table linens that contain silk or wool should never be bleached, nor should certain colored fabrics. Some dyed synthetic fabrics can be successfully bleached, but you should perform a colorfastness test first. (To test your fabric, dilute 2 teaspoons of bleach in 1/2 cup of water and apply a drop on an inconspicuous area. If the color doesn't change within two minutes, it's safe to use bleach.)

So, how to make the most of your bleach? Trena Jones, quality control manager at AlEn USA, the maker of Cloralen bleach products, offers these tips:

1. For tough stains, dilute 1 cup of bleach with 2 cups of water. Immerse the stained portion of your linens for five minutes, then rub the area gently with a cloth or sponge to break up the stain. Launder as usual.

2. To remove less aggressive stains in your washing machine, add 1/2 cup bleach along with your favorite detergent.

napkin fold tie knot
Alpha Smoot

How to Brighten

Even if they're not stained, white linens can lose their luster. If yours are starting to yellow, there are a couple tried-and-true methods for brightening them back up.

If you live in a sunny climate, simply hang your linens outside for an afternoon. "The sun is like natural bleach," says Maker. "UV exposure will help to brighten the fabric and can even lighten stains."

For bleach-friendly fabrics, try giving them a little soak. Jones recommends submerging lackluster linens in a mixture of 1/3 cup of bleach diluted with 2 1/2 gallons of water. After 10 minutes, launder as usual.

[CLEAN: Learn How to Keep Your White T-Shirts Bright and Looking New]

Removing Wax

Drippy candles are the enemy of many a tablecloth. Not only do they leave a waxy residue, but most contain dyes that can stain linens.

  • Maker offers this approach to removing candle drippings:
  • First, using a butter knife, carefully scrape as much wax off the fabric as possible.

Then, place a clean paper towel over the remaining wax. With your iron on the lowest setting, take one pass over the paper towel; replace the paper towel with a new one, and repeat. This process will transfer the wax from your tablecloth to the paper towels.

After you've removed the wax, treat the area with a stain remover and launder.

stamped linens
Johnny Miller

Consult Your Dry Cleaner

If your holiday linens are particularly delicate or hold sentimental value, consider bringing them directly to your dry cleaner. Vintage lace and grandmom's embroidery may call for more specialized care.

"Whenever you stain something you really love, whether it's a dress or a tablecloth, the dry cleaner is your best option," says Maker. "Too many at-home attempts to remove the stain can ruin the fabric or hinder the ability of a professional to remove the stain."

Smart Storage

The sooner you treat a stain, the better chance you have at conquering it. Before storing your holiday linens, make sure that you've removed all traces of pumpkin pie and eggnog-you don't want them to spend an entire year getting cozy.

It's also important to thoroughly dry all linens before storing, says Maker. Even the tiniest bit of moisture can lead to a musty, mildewed mess.

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